Obstacles to meditation in the college classroom

Imagine, if you will, this scene: just under two dozen first-year college students have, somehow, dragged themselves out of bed at the near-crack of dawn, eschewed changing out of nightclothes in favor of shoving bare feet into flip flops or possible Uggs, and slouched into a third-story classroom. They rest their heads on their tables hoping for a few minutes more of sleep or, perhaps, tap vainly at their smartphones in disbelief that they can be the only person in their social network online at a given moment. When the young-ish professor enters, distinguished from the students mostly by dint of wearing real clothes, they might ignore her, or stare blearily, second-guessing their decision to take Introduction to Psychology, or wondering how they can be expected to think at this hour, or maybe – just maybe – hoping that this class will match everything that have come to expect out of college.

What would happen if that professor announced that they were going to begin class by meditating?

The picture I have painted may be overly cynical – this time of year is a heady brew of hopeful anticipation mingled with fear for faculty as well as students – but it is founded in reality. The possibility of it being all too true is why, despite my involvement in contemplative practice and study of its benefits for mind and health, meditation has had only a cameo appearance in only one of the courses I have taught. I am currently participating in a week-long contemplative pedagogy retreat (and at the moment this entry is scheduled to post, should be transitioning from guided meditation to a yoga session), seeking inspiration and suggestions from other professors about how they have worked contemplation into a college course. Which seems like the perfect time to showcase a new peer-reviewed journal, The Journal of Contemplative Enquiry, and its articles on contemplative practices in higher education.

One of the inaugural articles is, in fact, a discussion of the challenges and strategies of introducing contemplative practices to the psychology curriculum. Although the article sometimes veers into the kind of broad, definitive, unsubstantiated claims that have my inner scientist waving red flags like a semaphore operator, the perspective presented is still helpful when seen as based on experiencer rather than science. Let’s consider the five challenges, and what resolution we might find.

1) Contemplative practice is hard to justify as part of any given content class.

To counter this, three rationales or goals are suggested: some that are specifically related to the class, such as connecting with what’s being taught; some that are more specific to the students, such as training attention or other skills that would help the students succeed in school; and some that serve a broader goal, such as enhancing the students’ overall well-being. I have mostly thought about the “skills” approach, and in fact introduced my one instance of in-class meditation as an “attention exercise”. I do believe that the goal of enhancing well-being is an important one, but it is harder to justify that in any content course; likewise, class-related justifications often feel like a stress (including the new one of using the shared silence as a way of promoting “solidarity” among classmates). But that could be my bias toward cognitive arguments showing.

2) Contemplative practice is difficult to make part of any given lesson.

Switching from meditation to freewheeling discussion might cause some kind of intellectual whiplash, sure. Fortunately, this concern can be easily addressed by having students contemplate their own experiences and (voluntarily) share them as part of a class discussion. The write-pair-share technique seems well known in the K-12 education community, shorn of any spiritual trappings. Lovingkindness meditation might still be more difficult to work into, say, a chemistry class, but other practices nestle in nicely.

3) Contemplative practice does pose some risk to students.

Although this section presents the vague and unsubstantiated claim that “Disturbing reactions can be triggered when students have loose psychological boundaries or insufficient ego strength” (p. 42), which sounds like pseudo-psychology from a badly research TV show, I can’t argue with the overall point, having previously written about Willoughby Britton’s work on the potential negative consequences of meditation (see “No such thing as a free lunch” and “Let there be meditating light“). One approach here is to emphasize to students that everything is voluntary so they don’t have to try if it makes them uncomfortable, which may be sound – but also puts me in mind of the recent debate about putting trigger warnings on college classes, and whether the point of college is to help students encounter and get used to some discomfort.

4) Most college professors do not feel qualified to teach contemplative practices; we have no formal training.

I admit to having this feeling myself, but I have also recognized how bizarre it is; after all, most college professors have no training in teaching, either. I was one of the fortunate ones, trained through CU Boulder’s Graduate Teacher Program, but most PhDs are based solely on expertise in the field, no classroom skill or even experience necessary. It’s odd that we might be willing to accept a steep instructor learning curve for teaching content matter – arguably, the most important thing we teach – but want credentials for teaching what is in a way just bonus material. I know of no research that investigates whether the skill of a meditation teacher alters any benefits from meditation. As in many things, projecting confidence and competence may be enough.

5) Contemplative instruction might violate the separation of church and state.

I admit, this is not a concern I have had exactly – there are some advantages to teaching at a private college – but there is some thought of being perceived as imposing a religious or spiritual practice. Meditation is on the fast-track to become as American-secular as Christmas, shorn of most obvious connections to its founding religion, but not everyone would see it that way. The key again is to offer students the freedom to not participate, as long as they are not disruptive to those who do wish to participate. I wonder, though, if this sets a bad precedent suggesting that students can choose which activities in class to do and which not to. At some point, skipping too many or a certain kind of activity will be detrimental to what they are supposed to learn.

And now, with those challenges presented, read over, and cogitated upon, even with some overstated claims and ideas not yet researched….I do feel better about trying to work meditation into my classes. Simply laying out and mulling over the ideas makes the challenges seem smaller, and not worth abandoning attempts to introduce meditation into the classroom over.

The unreadable expression on students faces, however, are a deterrent that will be difficult to overcome.

Burack, Charles (2014). Responding to the challenges of a contemplative curriculum. The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry, 1 (1), 35-54

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